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Recession is giving inventors time to fine-tune their ideas

With time on their hands, self-starters are pushing concepts to finality.

May 25, 2009|Alana Semuels

If we have the Great Depression to thank for inventions such as the Twinkie, Monopoly and the photocopier, this recession may be remembered for inspiring a biodegradable shower mat, a tie that holds iPods and a gadget that breaks the vacuum seals of jars.

That's because some self-starters among the ranks of the unemployed, sick of trudging off to job fairs and sending out resumes, are starting businesses to finally launch that invention they've been mulling over for years.

Some are hoping to make millions. Others are merely trying to solve those tricky problems in life you didn't know you had until you saw them in an infomercial.

"This fluctuation happens every time there's a dip in the economy," said Andrew Krauss, president of the Silicon Valley-based Inventors Alliance, which holds monthly meetings at which inventors share ideas and learn how to patent products. "But it's doubled lately -- I've never seen so many people at our meetings."

Tampa, Fla., resident Joe Sale is convinced that his invention is going to change the way people wear neckties, "one tie at a time." The iTie holds iPods, business cards and credit cards in a pocket on the back, and it's fitted with elastic bands that keep the tie from falling in the wearer's soup.

Sale had been thinking about how to improve on the modern cravat for years but didn't have time to create and patent the invention until he was laid off from his sales job at Robert Half Technology in August. He's put $25,000 into the project.

"I have been looking for a job," he said. "But the market is so bad, I know that realistically I'm not going to be employed in the next three months."

The number of patent and trademark filings in 2009 is lagging 2% behind last year because major corporations, which generate the vast majority, are cutting back, according to a spokeswoman from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

But in one indication of increased activity, membership in the United Inventors Assn., a nonprofit education and support group, has grown 20% in the last six months, said its executive director, Patrick Raymond.

Inventors in states including Michigan and New York have created six local clubs in the last year, Raymond said.

"Interest in inventing is high, and our membership is growing in the middle of a recession," he said.

Dina Beauvais of Phoenix spent 22 years buying, fixing up and selling houses. But after flipping one in August, she decided that the market was imploding and vowed to try her hand at inventing.

She has long been frustrated by the task of keeping food cold or warm when packing meals for her kids. So she spent $2,000 to make and patent a product she's calling Meals to Go. It's an airtight and watertight plastic container that carries food, a hot or cold pack and a soup tureen.

"My goal is to make $100,000 in royalties," she said. Just in case, she also sent out 100 resumes looking for a full-time job in telecommunications.

More Beauvais family products may be coming soon. She and her husband encourage their children to carry around "inventing notebooks" to jot down ideas. On the advice of patent attorneys, they date their entries in case they need to prove they came up with something first.

Since August, her 8-year-old daughter Lauren has invented a board game called the Math Pizza Hut Track (it's not affiliated with the restaurant chain); her husband, Mark, has created Flexi-Desk, an ergonomically sound desk for laptop computers; and Beauvais produced another product, the Dream to Destiny kit, which comes with a dream necklace and a patented tip sheet on how to fulfill your dreams. It's on sale online for $19.95.

"I worked in corporate America for 11 years and I wasn't happy," she said. "So I decided to be a full-time inventor."

Newark, Calif., soccer mom Rebecca Berrigan invented a product inspired by her own experience in the workplace.

While traveling on business for KB Home, Berrigan slipped in a Las Vegas hotel shower and almost hit her head. She thought then that someone should make a disposable shower mat. After being laid off in mid-2006, she decided to do it herself.

The product, Squishy Toes the Biodegradable Shower Mat, isn't selling as quickly as she had hoped: She says her target market of hotels isn't much in the shopping mood, so she's reformatting the product for use by campers. But she doesn't regret the $10,000 she spent to create and patent the product.

"It's been hugely rewarding to take something that was a thought and bring it to fruition," she said.

Because most inventors don't know much about marketing and selling their products, the best way to get inventions into the hands of consumers is to license them to companies with the means to produce, advertise and sell them, said Stephen Key, the co-founder of InventRight, a website that helps educate inventors about how to bring a product to market.

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